Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes - some big improvements for your business can be born from small, incremental changes that empower employees to make daily continuous improvement. It can be tempting to think of innovation as that mountain-top revelation or the lighting bolt idea. While glamorous, this vision of breakthrough improvements is misleading—most innovation comes from incremental improvement on ideas over time with continual process improvement . Cultivating a culture where every person is empowered to improve the processes, systems and tools they use to get work done can make a tremendous impact.
Take the story of two men who work on the shop floor at EMC Precision, one of our manufacturing clients. They identified a problem with the racks that held parts during part of the production process, and they designed and built a custom solution that they are in the process of having patented so they can potentially market and sell it to others. (For this full story and more about EMC, check out Chapter 4 of Predictable Results.) Not in manufacturing? Think about the “intrepreneurship” innovations we’ve all benefited from - from the Post-it note to Gmail.
If you are not inspired by what your team could achieve through continuous improvement, think about the flip side. What if you continued to operate exactly how you are operating now, forever? What if you didn’t adapt your internal processes and tools to new technologies and new ways of working? Without making improvements and striving continuously for operational excellence, your competitors will pass you by and never look back. You will be stuck doing things the way they’ve always been done while your industry is disrupted and your customers can’t leave you fast enough. Small scale innovation over the long term can provide years of return on investment, no matter your business model.
There are a lot of ways to frame your continuous improvement efforts—Kaizen, Lean, Six Sigma, TPS, Plan - Do - Check - Act, etc. Rather than examining these, I want to focus more on the underlying culture that you need to create for any of these strategies to work. After all, you can’t have “improvement” without “change,” and change is hard. If you want to build the groundwork for innovation and operational excellence in your company, you have to start with the underlying culture. As Alan Gehringer points out in Predictable Results, “Innovation demands that we develop a systems approach—consisting of the right people, the right environment, and the right structure—to support creative thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration to produce marketable results.” I’m going to focus the rest of this post on “the right environment” for continuous improvement. The innovation process must be supported in your organization in order for it to thrive.
How to create a culture of continuous improvement:
- Start with Why - We are big fans of Simon Sinek, and we constantly echo his refrain, "Start with Why." It applies here, too. Tell your team what you are trying to do and why. If you want to build continuous improvement into your culture, be clear with people what the objective is. Tell them why this will matter to the business, to their department or team, and to them, personally. What are the benefits of getting involved in this effort? This step can help with employee engagement and promote a culture of engaged leadership.
- Make It Concrete - Don’t just say, “Be more innovative!” and leave it at that. Get really specific about your goals and expectations. Do you want everyone to improve one thing every week or every quarter? Do you want everyone to participate in one cross-functional team each quarter to work on a specific area or process in the business? Do you want everyone to spend 20% of their time or x hours a week on personal passion projects? Give examples of the kinds of things you might expect to see if your team were focused on continuous improvement. The best way to make it concrete is to lead by example. Whatever the desired behavior you want to see from your team, begin modeling it openly and visibly and have key performance indicators (KPIs) to track.
- Let Them Do It - Give the team the tools, training and resources they need to be successful, communicate the expectations clearly, and then let them do it. Empower your team to make improvements that will help them serve customers better, save time, be more effective, etc. Working with a manager looking over your shoulder or having to ask permission and fill out forms can take the wind out of your teams’ creative sails. Let them own their results and encourage them to own the process they use to achieve those results as well. Listen to everyone in the organization as you'll never know where the next great idea will come from. Opportunities for improvement can come from anyone or any place in your company.
- Squash Myths - Attack the misconception that change has to be huge to make an impact. Highlight small things that can make a big difference. An article in Harvard Business Review cautions, “By discounting small ideas, managers may be shutting the door to an assortment of benefits, including increased competitive advantage, cost-saving devices, and the possibility of building on small ideas to foster larger ones.” (If you are looking for a good primer that could help your team get started with small improvements, the book 2-Second Lean is a good resource for this. Additionally, don’t let fear of failure stifle creativity. Allay fears by clearly communicating and demonstrating that mistakes are a normal part of progress. If your team members are afraid of what happens if they fail, they will not take risks or think big.
- Iterate - The work of a continuous improvement model—by its very nature—is never done. Create KPIs to measure your improvement efforts so you know whether or not you are moving the needle in the right direction (even if it is incremental), and keep making adjustments over time. Create cross-functional “Think rhythms” to brainstorm weekly or monthly on a particular process or project. Start small, keep measuring and keep improving. According to an article in Wired, rather than an innovation revolution that happens all at once, “a gradual evolution where tiny wins build on each other is a more sustainable (and effective) solution. Small initiatives are perfect for this because they build momentum and set the stage for larger initiatives to be successful.” These improvement projects can help the bottom line and lets you share the success stories cross-functionally to the whole company.
Hopefully, these tips can help you address some of the underlying conditions that need to be present in your company culture for continuous improvement and innovation to flourish. Building a culture takes work, but once you’ve laid the groundwork, implemented the right systems and tools to measure and stay accountable to these initiatives, and see the seed you planted taking root, you can consider operationalizing continuous improvement as one of your company’s core values or core competencies. Making it part of your Core Competencies Examples (once it’s established your company) and using it to inform everything from people decisions (recruiting, onboarding, recognition) to strategic decisions will make continuous improvement and innovation part of your company’s DNA.
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